Book review: Churchill’s Empire by Richard Toye

I was made aware of this book some time ago by a friend with links to the New York Times, where it had been reviewed by the now discredited journalist, Johann Hari. My understanding, based on that review and a couple of other references I picked up that this was not going to be a totally fawning biography of Churchill, focusing more on his early years in the foreign office.

This is not an holistic biography. The author’s aim is solely to look at Churchill’s influence on matters relating to British imperialism. As such, very little time is spent looking at the particulars of the First World War and when it comes to the Second World War, much might appear to be overlooked, though I think in reality the author is here correcting what has previously been overlooked in other Churchill biographies.

The subtitle of the book, The World That Made Him And the World He Made, is very apt. Toye works in a chronological order, starting with Churchill’s schooldays in the late 19th century. Toye shows us the influence that Churchill’s old schoolmasters had on him, along with his reading of Gibbon’s The Rise and Fall Of The Roman Empire.

From here, we look at Churchill’s time in Africa which influenced his own writing of My African Adventure. Throughout the book, the portrait of Churchill that is painted is that of someone who contrary. The book doesn’t flinch from including some of the racist language used, which may offend some readers. Certainly, if it were to be read aloud, such a reading would be unbroadcastable, though for the sake of decency, I shan’t include any of the offending words here.

In my opinion, the most fascinating sections of the book are those dealing with India. The Churchill we see here is one who cares for the needs of those would call India ‘home’ but he also lacked any confidence in their ability to rule themselves. So we have two threads of racism and care intertwined throughout Churchill’s life. Probably the most damning section looks at Churchill’s role in the Mau Mau uprising, and I was left thinking had the same thing happened in the 1990s whether or not Churchill might have been pursued and charged with war crimes.

It’s a very enlightening book, well-written and really quite accessible. Some of it does seem to get a bit ‘samey’ though I think this is just a consequence of the events being described, rather than the fault of the book’s author. I think it’s an important read for anyone interested in Churchill or in British imperial history.

2 responses to “Book review: Churchill’s Empire by Richard Toye

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